Although she never saw herself as a disability advocate, Tiffany Yu has always carried her disability on her shoulders. With both a visible and non-visible manifestation of disability, Tiffany grew up noticing that disability was the elephant in the room, even if it was only part of who she was.
In 2009, she stepped into her advocacy and started Diversability, a movement dedicated to raising awareness for disability and reshaping notions of what “ability” really means.
With masks and facial coverings mandatory in most places worldwide, communication has become a struggle for many people. Those who are hard of hearing or deaf cannot read the lips of the person they are speaking to, making it extremely difficult to communicate normally.
Diversability noticed this problem and got to work on sourcing a solution. They teamed up with Kimuli Fashionability to produce face masks with a plastic window around the mouth, effectively making lip reading and even smiling possible again.
We sat down with Tiffany to discuss Diversability, windowed masks, and being a better ally.
1. Tell us about your experience with disability.
I was involved in a car accident when I was nine years old. My dad, who was driving, unfortunately, passed away, and I ended up acquiring a spinal cord injury that would end up paralyzing one of my arms – known as a brachial plexus injury. I would much later be diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD. So I have a physical manifestation of my disability and also a non-visible manifestation of my disability.
2. What led you to start Diversability? What was the goal behind the movement?
So I first started Diversability in 2009, when I was still in university, because I couldn’t find any other organizations that address three main things.
Number one, they were a cross-disability or a pan-disability movement. Number two, they engaged allies, or people or non-disabled people in the conversation.
And number three, they framed disability in a way that wasn’t as an object of pity, victim, shame, but rather a source of pride, identity, and empowerment.
At a fundamental level, I also think it was really around building a disability community and rooting myself in the community. Research shows one of the keys to longevity and your well-being and happiness are your social connections and having healthy relationships. I noticed that frequently, when we talk about disability, we frame it in terms of all of the issues that exist, but fail to neglect that all of us have a desire for human connection. So the current goal behind the movement is to really amplify as many diverse disability lived experiences as possible. It’s this idea that you can’t be what you can’t see. So how can we create as many opportunities for Disability Visibility access and opportunity so that our future generations of disabled people have role models, or what Laverne Cox has coined possibility models for generations to come.
3. What’s in a name? When we break down Diversability, we get Diverse Ability. Can you tell us more about that?
So the idea behind the naming of Diversability is not to change the word disability. We take pride in our disability identity and have no problems with the word. When we use euphemisms, we are further perpetuating the stigma that disability is a bad word, or that disability is a bad thing, or that it means that we’re broken or that something is wrong with us. And that is really at the root of ableism and not something that we are trying to perpetuate. So the reason why we are called Diversability is that we see disability as diversity and as diverse. We see so many initiatives focused on gender equity, LGBTQ+ inclusion, and racial equity, but often disability is missing from those conversations. As we think about creating a more inclusive world, how can we make sure that disability is a part of how we think about diversity? It goes back to our mission of wanting to highlight as many diverse disability stories as possible. One of the reasons I believe we are in the position that we’re in, with these victim-pity-shame narratives, is that we’ve only gotten one narrative about what disability looks like. It’s important to share as many and amplify as many different stories as possible.
We really, I think, shift and reframe how we talk about and how we look at disability.
4. Can you tell us about your partnership with Kimuli Fashionability? How did you connect, and what was the process like?
So I connected with Kimuli Fashionability through a friend named Michael Zuckerman, and he does really great work around re-envisioning and rebuilding refugee settlements in Uganda. He had sent me a post from Kimuli Fashionability featuring their accessible face masks. I ended up reaching out to them around a project that I was looking to launch, #MasksforDisability. Through the support of a reality grant from the Schusterman Foundation, we were able to purchase hundreds of masks to distribute to anyone in any disabled people in the US and their care teams who need them. I like Kimuli Fashionability because of so many things about how their business is structured, or their brand are built on sustainable values. The materials they use are upcycled African fabrics, and they employ disabled people. They have a one-for-one model where they’re also distributing masks locally to street vendors. And so it really just felt good to be able to support an accessible design that also supported disabled people, and was also environmentally sustainable.
5. This year has been a whirlwind of unpredictability, and masks are something that most people didn’t see coming. The windowed masks solve communicative problems that benefit everyone, hard of hearing or otherwise. What’s the next step for getting more of these masks out there?
I’ve been really honoured by the amount of visibility that this project has gotten. And I hope it raises awareness around inequities that a masked environment has created for people who need to see facial expressions or see lips, but at the same time, I think it highlights the fact that, um, inequities exist at all levels. So, at least for me and for #MasksForDisability, we are just trying to get the word out as much as possible to any disabled people who need access to masks. We know that there are a lot of people we haven’t yet reached. Every single share by a disabled or not disabled person really helps us get the word out.
6. This year especially, there are a lot of people who are looking for ways to be better allies and friends – what advice would you give to those people, as pertains to the disabled community?
I’m very proud of my disability identity. I think we need to use the term disabled as much as possible so that we remove any stigma that is currently associated with it.
In terms of how to be a better ally, I usually recommend three things:
Number one is checking out the documentary Crip Camp. It’s available on Netflix, but also available for free on YouTube. It is a documentary that highlights the path to the passage of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act in the United States. It’s really important to better understand disability history and where we came from.
Number two is what we call #DiversifyYourFeed! People need to follow disabled people on any social media channels that they are on and amplify their posts and their voice. What we want to do is try and make sure that we are not that we are ensuring that disabled people have control of their own narrative in their own words.
Number three, my organization Diverseability, has an online community where you can see and join the conversations that are happening among disabled people right now. You can find us if you type in @DiversityCommunity on Facebook, or you can type in, or you can head to Bit.ly/diversabilitycommunity.
Number four is to take concrete action. We need you to hire disabled people and pay us a dignified wage. Work is where we form social connections, where we feel like we’re contributing to society. Dignified employment for disabled people is something that needs a lot of work, so if you are in a position to hire, even if it’s for a small contract role, hire a disabled person. If you’re curious about where to look for disabled talent, there are so many platforms you can head to, like Chronically Capable, Getting Hired, and Matheson.
7. Where can we buy windowed masks?
If you have the opportunity and the means to purchase a mask, you can do so through a couple of different vendors; Rebirth Garments is one I recommend here in the US, or you can reach out to Kimuli Fashionability.
You can reach out to Kimuli Fashionability directly at firstname.lastname@example.org, or through WhatsApp – you can find their number on their Instagram.
Thank you for supporting disability-owned businesses! Don’t hesitate to reach out to me across social media at @ImTiffanyYu, and follow @Diversability across any social channels.